A Smell Test for GM Food

At last, after years of throwing dirt at each other, groups that are battling over genetically modified (GM) food are starting to plow the same field.

A global agreement was reached among most nations on Saturday that puts modest controls on the rapidly expanding global trade in GM seeds, food stuffs, and food products.

It's an imperfect pact with practical compromises that, at the least, buys times for food companies, the US government, and the market to sort out fears from reality regarding GM agriculture.

The dangers of gene-altered plants have been greatly exaggerated, especially in Europe, while GM food companies - mainly American - have not been persuasive or forthcoming enough about potential dangers.

Both sides of the argument won something in Montreal: some safeguards will be put in place but there won't be a halt to an industry that's producing new plants that use less chemicals, less land, and less water.

Up to now, a lack of scientific openness and thoroughness by GM firms has been matched by fear-mongering environmental zeal. The pact shows there's a middle ground.

It allows nations to block imports of a GM food product when they don't have full scientific knowledge that the product would do no harm. But the pact also sets up a biosafety clearing house that will help countries share technical data on newly engineered products. Countries seeking to protect farmers from foreign imports can't use false fears about GM foods to do so.

The pact does not override the free-trade rules of the World Trading Organization but it is meant to be "mutually supportive" with the WTO.

And for at least two years, GM food exporters will only need to label products with the words that they "may contain" genetically modified material. This was the most critical compromise in Montreal. Grain exporters feared being forced to spend billions of dollars to segregate GM and nonGM grains. While such separation could eventually be ordered, the industry and United States government have time to improve their scientific case for the safety of GM products and see what the market demands.

Three different US agencies now regulate GM food in various ways, and all are moving quickly to tighten up their scrutiny of GM research and field application in the face of growing consumer concerns. The Food and Drug Administration, especially, should sharpen its oversight of research on new GM products.

Meanwhile, major organic food store chains are vowing not to sell products containing GM food, but they face hurdles in tracking such information.

Reason has come finally come to this debate, and none too soon.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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